The Rutgers men’s basketball team entered Wednesday’s matchup with Miami with an unblemished record of 6-0, its best start since 1975, and a single Associated Press Top-25 poll vote, something they hadn't gotten since 2005.
But the wins came without much resistance, the Scarlet Knights bulldozing all but one of their first six obstacles by double-digits, all of which were teams below the standard head coach Steve Pikiell is holding his team to.
The Hurricanes represented the first real test for Rutgers, an opportunity to measure itself against a team vying to return to the NCAA Tournament, a competition the Knights haven’t reached since 1991.
And while Rutgers came short of the upset, falling 73-61 to Miami in front of 7,064 at the Watsco Center in Coral Gables, it validated some of the early signs of improvement under Pikiell.
For one, the team that suffered blowout losses of 31, 34, 39 and 50 points last season was able to prevent the Hurricanes from jumping out to a similarly sized lead after a fast start.
The Knights took their only lead of the game at 2-0, hitting the first shot of the game before Miami went on a 25-8 run to take a hefty lead.
The Hurricanes held just as dominant a lead at the rim. Miami outrebounded its visitors 44-30 and it was most dominant early on, at one point quadrupling the number of boards (16-4) Rutgers, the nation’s leading offensive rebounding team entering Wednesday, had.
The hosts could’ve had even more boards if not for the eight shots they swatted, four of which coming in the first half.
Junior forward Deshawn Freeman, who entered the match as Rutgers’ leading rebounder and tied for the team lead in scoring, struggled the most early on. He finished the first half with no points and no rebounds, going 0-for-5 in 13 minutes on the floor.
And while two of the misses came as a result of his shot being blocked by a group of long Miami defenders, the first two were uncontested layups the Knights’ captain is expected to convert.
“They’re so long, didn’t really let us get anything. And when we got some good looks, we didn’t finish them,” Pikiell told Rutgers’ IMG Radio Network’s Jerry Recco after the game. “So, you know, it’s a combination of the blocks and few layups. I thought Deshawn got some good opportunities to score, just couldn’t finish it. But their length, they were aggressive.”
Rutgers weathered the early storm, reducing the deficit to just 5 points when halftime came around with an 18-8 run to close the first frame.
Shots weren’t falling for the Knights, who shot 31 percent in the first half and 39 for the entire game, but they took advantage of sloppy play from the Hurricanes to mount the comeback, using 11 first-half turnovers for more opportunities to score.
But the Hurricanes took better care of the ball in the second half, allowing them to focus on blowing Rutgers away with a 19-4 run out of the gates to take a 53-32 lead midway through the closing frame.
The Knights wouldn’t concede defeat easily though, playing hard until the final whistle. Rutgers implemented a full-court press as the game reached crunch time, reducing Miami’s lead to 10 with two layups off of two consecutive turnovers.
“They’re learning that too. That’s a work in progress too,” Pikiell said of playing from behind late in games. “It was a good opportunity for some guys to really step up and play some of our defenses there in late game situations so it’s a good sign moving forward.”
Rutgers won the turnover margin, 19-11, much to the pleasure of Pikiell. It was led by Mike Williams, who finished with a game-high four steals to go along with his team-high 16 points off the bench.
The junior guard’s final swipe epitomized one of the biggest changes this team has seen over the past 10 months.
It came with 47 seconds remaining and the Knights down 12 and led to a pair of free throws from Freeman, who bounced back from the worst half of his time with Rutgers with 11 points and four rebounds in the final 20 minutes. Pikiell’s team was in a full-court press and, despite needing a comeback that would make nearly every end-of-the-year highlight reel if completed, played tough defense and stuck to their defenders like glue.
A year ago, the Hurricanes would probably have zipped through and drain the shot clock, but not without hitting one last layup to push an embarrassing route a little further into history.
Not Wednesday night. Though they never reduced their deficit to single digits for the final 15 minutes, the Knights played the final 30 seconds like it was a 2-point game.
“I liked our heart though, we dug and they fought until the end and that’s a good sign,” Pikiell said. “Moving forward, you gotta play better against the Miami’s of the world … We’ll continue. This is a marathon, game 7 and we got a long ways to go.”